Sacramento County officials on Watt Avenue backup: It’ll get better

After a road reconstruction project contributed to lengthy traffic jams on Watt Avenue last week, Sacramento County transportation chief Mike Penrose said crews are moving fast on fixes to improve traffic flows – and urged drivers not to judge the project just yet.

Traffic backed up for a mile in both directions early last week at Watt and Highway 50 after crews closed some ramps and opened others as part of a $23 million remake of the interchange. Ensuing backups angered drivers and caused some to say the county should have left the interchange the way it was.

Penrose acknowledged this week the county didn’t adequately plan for traffic management when it altered ramps and added intersections last week, and apologized for the problems. “We’re sorry we had the impact. We believe we’ve addressed it.”

But, he said, county officials firmly believe that the end product, a unique and modern interchange, will prove to be worth the effort. The interchange is expected to be finished in six months.

“When it is done, it is going to work significantly better for vehicles,” Penrose said.

One of the project’s main goals. he said, is to eliminate several “friction” areas on the old ramps, where cars getting off and on the freeway had to compete for the same lane. Officials said those merge areas caused traffic to back up on the freeway.

The new design also will eliminate several merge points on top of the overpass. The new interchange will be similar to other interchanges constructed in recent years on the Highway 50 corridor, including Zinfandel, Mather Field and Bradshaw roads, where vehicles exit the freeway on multi-laned straight ramps, rather than loop lanes, then turn right or left at an intersection.

The Watt interchange, though, will be unique, county officials said.

Watt will get new lanes in each direction, making it the widest overpass in Sacramento. It also will have an added center lane for buses only. The county also is building a separate paved pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, with underpasses, so that those groups will not have to cross paths with cars.

None of that was any consolation to drivers last week when changes at the construction site caused backups in every direction, including on the freeway.

The backups were caused when work crews closed two of the loop exits, replacing them with the new ramps and with two new signalized intersections on Watt Avenue at the top of each ramp. Officials said they did not have enough lanes open on the ramps, or on Watt Avenue, and did not have the signal light durations adjusted correctly. Crews since then have opened an extra lane on Watt, changed signal timing, and plan to open another lane in the coming weeks.

Commuter Larry Whitmer said that even as late as the evening commute last Friday, he was stuck for four light cycles on Folsom Boulevard, trying to turn onto Watt Avenue.

County officials said they also sped up work this week pouring concrete for an additional lane on one ramp. By this Friday, officials said, they hope to have the two new signals connected to the county traffic control center so engineers can monitor traffic and change signal timing accordingly.

Penrose said he expects drivers to see considerable improvements when the project is done, but cautioned that the area will continue to be a work zone for months to come, and that could lead to some construction-related slowdowns.